Construction on new homes in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank spiked by 70 percent in the first half of 2013, an Israeli NGO reported Thursday — raising worries that peace talks, which renewed in July after a three-year lull due to ongoing disputes over settlement building, could falter.
According to Peace Now, which tracks settlement activity in Palestinian territory Israel captured in the war of 1967, construction began on 1,708 settlement homes from January to June of this year, compared with 995 during the same period in 2012.
Moreover, it said that 61 percent of the construction took place in isolated settlements outside larger settlement blocs that Israel has said it intends to keep in any future land-for-peace deal.
Settlements built on Palestinian territories occupied by Israel, including East Jerusalem, are deemed illegal by the United Nations, and insistence that Israel demonstrate good faith by halting such construction had been a key reason for the Palestinian side declining to reenter peace talks over the past three years.
An estimated 500,000 Israelis currently live in fortified Jewish-only settlements in the Palestinian territories, home to 2.5 million Palestinians.
In May, Israeli media reported that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had ordered a freeze in tenders for new housing projects in West Bank settlements in an apparent attempt to help revive U.S.-backed peace talks.
However, on the eve of the resumed talks Israel approved 942 new settlement housing units in East Jerusalem.
Mark Regev, spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, insisted at the time that the new settlement units were being built "in areas that will remain part of Israel in any possible future peace agreement."
"It changes nothing," he added.
But Palestinians have not agreed to land swaps, and Peace Now insists that most settlement expansion continues by stealth.
"The tendency of Netanyahu's government has been to build more in isolated settlements deep in the West Bank where tenders are not needed, compared with the previous government which built more in settlements closer to the Green Line," said Peace Now’s Hagit Ofran.
Yousef Munayyer, executive director of Washington-based think tank The Palestine Center, told Al Jazeera that quiet expansion is part of Israel’s modus operandi.
"They always talk about peace and wanting to have negotiations, but their actions speak to a completely different objective. This (report) tells us what their real intentions are in the West Bank — to entrench their presence there and never leave so that Palestinians can't form a state," he said.
Senior Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat told Agence France-Presse the settlement building is "destroying the peace process," and that Israel is "fully responsible for this situation and its outcome."
Ofran concurred. "Fortunately the Palestinians did not leave the talks because of the continued construction in settlements, but there is a chance that if this policy continues, then it will be very, very hard to hold on to the talks," she said.
Israeli daily Maariv reported on Thursday that the negotiations almost collapsed in September due to conflicting positions on future borders, particularly where the eastern West Bank adjoins Jordan.
Israel has long stated that it seeks to retain a long-term military presence along the Jordan Valley, which the Palestinians vigorously oppose.
"We don't want an Iranian satellite in the West Bank as has already happened along our borders," Netanyahu said Wednesday in reference to the influence wieled by armed groups Hamas and Hezbollah in the Gaza Strip and Southern Lebanon, respectively.
Maariv reported that in an attempt to resolve the impasse, Israeli negotiators proposed leasing the valley "for decades" from the Palestinians.
Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas's spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina said Thursday that such an arrangement was unacceptable.
"We shall not accept any Israeli military presence, not even that of a single soldier, on the soil of the Palestinian state," he told AFP.
Nadeem Muaddi contributed to this report. With wire services.